At one time, the United Methodist Church’s Disciplinary approach to alcohol consumption was singular — abstinence only. The church’s historical position has a strong rooting in the reality that alcohol abuse damages or destroys marriages and families, threatens jobs, leads to serious and often fatal automobile accidents, and can so consume an individual’s personality as to hinder or inhibit personal and spiritual growth.
Abstinence remains the first ideal, according to the most recent, 2004, Book of Discipline. However, in a growing awareness that many United Methodists choose to consume alcoholic beverages, the Book of Discipline now contains the recommending phrase, “….and with regard to those who choose to consume alcoholic beverages, judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint, with Scripture as guide.” (Paragraph 162J, Social Principles.)
The Discipline does not soften its warning of the dangers of alcohol abuse, but seeks to provide some manner of spiritual guidance for those who elect to consume. Undoubtedly, some might claim that we have watered down our historical stance, and that this is some slippery slope. However, I think that the church has a duty to present solutions, not just rules. It became clear over the years that many United Methodists were going to drink regardless of what the Discipline recommended regarding abstinence. The current language, without overtly compromising the Church’s historical stance, now seems to recognize that “abstinence only” is not an effective policy for all and that a secondary policy of judicious use allows us to provide some guidance to those who reject abstinence. In that regard, perhaps, the Bible should be seen as a Living Testament that both upholds essential truths but also offers answers to people’s every day concerns.
The absolute prohibition on alcohol consumption did not come from John Wesley, as he was known to drink beer and wine on a responsible basis. He did seem to disapprove of spirituous (hard) liquors except as prescribed by a physician for medicinal purposes and he was certainly condemning of what he considered the exploitive rum trade. Rather, it was in the American temperance movement that American Methodists came to condemn all alcohol consumption. The ravages of alcohol abuse and the diversion of paychecks from family needs to imbibing were obviously valid concerns. No one can dispute that misuse of alcohol has had a devastating impact on society. The church helped push — perhaps in hindsight shortsightedly because of the bootlegging and corresponding crime that ensued — the now repealed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that forbade alcohol trade.
However, is alcohol consumption per se a matter to be regarded in all times and places as sinful? Is consumption of alcohol a matter central to the faith? Is it possible to drink responsibly and be a faithful Christian? Do you make a distinction between wine and beer/ale on the one hand and spirituous (hard)liquors on the other hand?
For United Methodist pastors, our Judicial Council has ruled that mere consumption of alcohol is not a chargeable offense, but that the burden nevetheless remains on the consuming pastor to demonstrate that such use is in keeping with “the ideals of excellence of mind, purity of body, and responsible social behavior.” (In reflection of the Council ruling, see Paragraph 311.3f, footnote 3.) At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I can say that an occasional cold brew or glass of wine may very well have preserved my sanity.
I might note that the British Methodist Church position on alcohol seems to be more geared toward misuse rather than outright promotion of abstinence. In the United Methodist Church, regardless of individual partaking, the serving of alcoholic beverages on church property, particularly with respect to church functions, is prohibited. Many Conferences have extended that understanding to be a prohibiton of serving alcohol at any church function, regardless of whether the function is held on church property or not. See Richard’s earlier related post “Methodists Taking to Drink?”
Whatever a Christian’s view on the use of alcohol, I would hope and pray that we could all agree on one thing and that is that any of us who do drink, even responsibly, should avoid consuming around those with a history of alcohol abuse or temptatation, for the cause of encouraging our brother or sister is far more important than the principle of our right or enjoyment.